A Mexican Guide to Taco Styles
There’s a lot more to a taco than a meat or veggie filling and a tortilla. While a somewhat recent culinary invention, there is still not a dish that encapsulates the many diverse culinary traditions of Mexico than the humble taco.
Read on to learn the history of tacos, what part of Mexico your favorite taco style hails from, and what some of our favorite taco fillings are.
A brief history of tacos
While the true origins of the taco are not currently and will likely never be truly known, some historians link the taco’s origin to the silver mines of 18th century Mexico. The word “taco” was used in reference to mini explosives they’d use to break up and excavate ore. “Miners tacos” were pieces of paper wrapped around gunpowder — essentially forming a taco.
While the fundamentals of what we know today as Mexican food go backs thousands of years, tacos were not widely eaten until the past 150 or so years. Known as a working-person’s food, tacos gained popularity as Mexico City industrialized and people from all over Mexico immigrated there.
Taquerías popped up in these working class neighborhoods and featured elements of the cuisine ranging the whole country. This affordable new food, as well as other foods we associate as Mexican food, then allowed a diversity of delicious cuisine to the working people of Mexico City.
Taco styles spanning a nation
Much like the nation itself, Mexico’s regions offer distinct styles and ingredients that reflect the culture and natural world of the regions themselves. While there’s always some overlap, each region has its own unique trends. See if you can spot any while you read through the different taco styles from different regions in Mexico!
- Northern Mexican tacos are known for their meat, specifically beef, and are heavy tacos served with flour tortillas. Popular meat styles include carne asada (barbecued beef) and machaca (dried beef).
- The tacos on the Baja Peninsula are a seafood-heavy affair and also feature primarily flour tortillas. This is where fish tacos were popularized! One popular style is taco de langosta con frijoles (lobster with beans).
- Central Mexican tacos are likely what you think of when you think “authentic taco” and implement the traditional corn tortillas. Popular styles include al pastor (marinated pork with pineapple), which were actually introduced to Mexico from Lebanese immigrants. Other popular styles include barbacoa (stewed beef), suadero (beef leg cuts), carnitas (deep fried pork), and potosinos (potato, carrot, and cheese).
- The Pacific Coast of Mexico is also known for its fish tacos, though these use corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas like those in Baja. Popular taco styles most often include prawns or breaded white fish, very often marlin.
- Tacos from the Gulf Coast are some of the more unique styles of tacos. Dorados de pejelagarto (freshwater gar) is an iconic taco here.
- In the Yucatan Peninsula, the taco de cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) reigns supreme. Another popular style is pescado tikinxik (fish in achiote sauce).
- Another unique area for tacos and the home of Taxco, Mexico, Southern Mexico’s most iconic tacos use insects as a filling. Popular styles include chapulines (fried grasshopper) and hormiga chicatana (flying ants). This area is not for the faint of heart!
Are corn tortillas more authentic?
Many taco lovers out there will tell you that flour tortillas are less authentic than corn tortillas. While this is often true, it really depends on the style of taco that you’re eating.
Making matters even more fraught, when Europeans first landed in what is today Mexico and colonized the area, they viewed corn as something associated with native people. This made corn products seen as a “lesser” food and wheat as a “higher class” food. Rightfully so, this has made the issue a difficult one. And in Southern and Central Mexico, corn tortillas are the authentic tortilla to use. Not only is corn more readily abundant and a key crop in Mexico, this is how it’s been served for generations and is the true spirit of tacos from the region.
Corn tortillas are generally smaller and are often doubled up for each taco to provide a more stable taco-eating experience. If you are going to eat a carnitas or el pastor taco, corn tortillas not only taste better, but are what is authentically correct.
In Northern Mexico however, the flour tortilla reigns supreme. Colonial rule and a more European influence created Northern Mexico’s preference for flour tortillas. Europeans believe that wheat flour was an ingredient connected to Jesus Christ, and thus preferred wheat over corn. Today, regardless of ancestry, Northern Mexico’s flour tortillas are just as “authentic” as the rest of the country’s corn tortillas, if not with a little bit of a difficult past.
Our 9 favorite traditional taco fillings
Below you’ll find our favorite traditional taco fillings, all of which are traditional Mexican taco styles. Keep in mind, the descriptions below include the traditional ways of preparing the filling. Many prepare these foods using meat substitutes or other more attainable methods. (Not everyone has access to an open flame, it doesn’t mean you can’t still make Al Pastor tacos at home!)
Loosely translated from “shepherd-style pork,” this taco style is marinated in chiles and spices, and then slow cooked on a spinning tromp over an open flame. This style originated from Lebanese immigrants, which is why it is cooked much like kebabs and other Lebanese cuisine.
Generally this dish is prepared with beef, though many swear that goat is the only true way to prepare barbacoa. For preparation, it is slow cooked over an open flame or underground.
A favorite in Northern Mexico, this filling is always prepared with cow meat and is made from the flap steak from the short loin section of a cow. It’s generally marinated in a blend of citrus juice, cumin, and other spices.
Translated from “little meats,” carnitas is generally made from pork shoulder that is braised or simmered for hours until it begins to fry in its own fat. It is traditionally served crispy.
In Spain, chorizo is cured and smoked, but in Mexico it is sold uncooked and fresh. It’s made from a blend of minced meat seasoned with spicy chili peppers.
One of our more adventurous choices, lengua is actually tongue of beef. If not slow cooked and chopped small, it can taste too chewy. When done right, it is pure bliss in a tortilla.
Fish tacos are known globally, but pescado tacos originated in Baja, Mexico. Crucially served with a flour tortilla, cabbage, and pico de gallo, the type of fish and preparation are flexible. We love fried mahi-mahi on ours!
This is a simple chicken taco meat filling that is often cut into chunks as opposed to shredded. It is usually marinated prior to preparation.
Generally made from chicken thighs, tinga taco filling is generally braised in a chipotle-chile sauce before being shredded and served.
Can’t get enough of Mexican culture?
Engage with Mexican culture in a whole new way with Mexican Silver Store’s collection of iconic silver jewelry. We work with true Mexican artisans and sell only authentic items.
Browse our selection today!